Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

I wonder now if they hear us tell
In tones of love and pride,
How they lived for us; how they fought and fell-
How they marched away and died:
If they do not gaze with their happy eyes,
And their rest is not more sweet.
When the mellow songs of the bugle rise
And the drums serenely beat!
--Memorial Day

In my last reminiscence I spoke of the promotion of General Grant to Lieutenant-General of the army, an office created for him by Congress. I do not remember the precise time of his promotion to that position by President Lincoln, but it was after the battle of Missionary Ridge. The lifting of General Grant from a Major-General into the new office was followed by the creation of "the Military Division of the Mississippi," thus placing all of the Western troops under the command of General William T. Sherman, who had been selected for the head of this very important division, General Grant assuming immediate command of the Eastern army with Sherman in the West, but Grant by his new rank becoming supreme commander of all the army no matter where stationed. The subject has never been much discussed, but it was very plain to the officers and soldiers of the Federal forces that the law creating a Lieutenant-General was a long step and a most important one in hurrying along the close of the war. Previous to the making of Grant a Lieutenant-General, there was no higher officer than that of Major-General, and of these there were many. The question of rank was fixed by the date of commission only, and this led to bickerings, fault-finding, jealousies and a general lack of unity among the leaders of the troops in the field. It will be remembered even that General Halleck, representing the War Department in Washington seemed to have an ill-will against General Grant both before and after his very successful operations leading up to the capture of both Forts Henry and Donelson, and this ill-will seemed to follow the General up to and even after the battle of Shiloh, the first of the great contests of the war. In the Army of the Potomac, the fault-finding and bickerings were greater than it was in the West, and led to placing the army in that section under many different Major-Generals; but the moment, almost, that Congress created the position of Lieutenant-General and Grant received his commission, the question of rank was so definitely settled that from that time forward success attended the Federal armies everywhere-in the East, the West and even in the South where the Federals held important points in Florida, and the navy was preparing to capture Mobile, although this was not done until vast dispositions were made requiring much time and the assembling of many ships and gunboats to capture the forts defending the harbor of Mobile.

Another point is well worth bearing in mind and that is the almost brotherly feeling that existed between Generals Grant and Sherman. The latter gave to his chief that unbounded loyalty and capable assistance without which not even a Grant could have succeeded and was the very reverse of what was the case when all of them were Major-Generals and some of them-several of them at the same time on occasions-scheming to oust the one in command in order to secure the place for themselves. Nothing of this sort of feeling-any other for that matter save an unbounded confidence-ever existed between Grant and Sherman, and it makes good reading even at the present day to read of the warm, hearty, efficient support that General Sherman extended to his new superior officer in rank and command. What is more this kindly brotherly feeling prevailed until his old commander and faithful friend was laid away in the silent tomb to be followed a few years later by the man who possessed the love and high esteem of the men he commanded to a greater degree, I firmly believe, than any other officer the war produced; and it was a common saying among the troops that they always felt safe and ready to obey any order they might receive from Sherman. In fact, the saying of one of the soldiers in his command that "his" army was willing to assault hell itself, if only Sherman was in command," was very generally understood by all of the men he commanded following the second year of the war at least. Looking back at the incident of making Grant a Lieutenant-General of the Army, it carried with it more elements of success than almost anything else could have done, and although I never heard the question discussed either before the war closed or since, yet I am sure that the records following his promotion to that position speak for themselves as to the value of placing him in the position by the success which attended the army afterwards, not a single serious reverse occurring from the hour that he assumed the supreme command of all the forces of the United States until Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

I have already spoken of the winter spent at Scottsboro as one of the pleasantest of the career of the Twelfth during the entire service, and I have met at least three surviving veterans who spent that winter there, each of whom corroborated the statement, since it has been made and each of them referred to many camp incidents of a pleasant nature that occurred there. It was at Scottsboro we spent what was known here in the North as "the cold New Year" -January 1, 1864-and while we were "away down in Alabama," yet the weather even there had a tingle to it that in a small degree indicated that something had occurred up North from which we would hear ere long and such enough, ever letter received by members of the regiment a few days thereafter was filled with accounts of and descriptions of the "cold New Year," and the tendency of the correspondence was to make the men contented with a region where the mercury was never known to drop from comparatively warm to 28 degrees below zero in a single night! At any rate, while the ground was slightly frozen in Northern Alabama, I heard many men declare they were glad that they were absent from home when a thermometer had no better use for itself than to record such a rapid change of temperature. Aside from the weather the men were having a very pleasant time. Every day visitors from other regiments and citizens from the North who had come down to see sons, husbands, fathers and brothers, came to see the beautiful camp that the men of the Twelfth had constructed, the reputation of which extended far and wide. Besides, rations were plentiful and every man had all and more than he could eat; the health of the men was extremely good, much of it owning to the cleanliness of the camp, which was in wonderful contrast with the one at Grand Junction, where so many of the members of the regiment succumbed to the beckon of the grim destroyer, many of the deaths caused wholly from the lay of the ground and the uncleanliness of the camp. Every day the regiment went through battalion drill and finally became almost a machine that could be doubled up on itself and in an instant spread out in line of battle, changing at double-quick all the time, to the four points of the compass, firing and reloading and performing as many as eight different and distinct battalion movements, including forming and reducing square, before coming to a halt, in that open field across the railroad from the camp that all "the boys" will remember, witnessed as it was every day it came out for drill by hundreds of spectators, the band having a stand built in the edge of timber and furnishing "double-quick" music for every movement made. I am confident that every member who reads this particular reference to the cam at Scottsboro will be carried back by these few references to the drill, of the regiment at that time most vividly.

Then, too, we had amusements of many kinds. I remember one morning a snow-balling in which the men drew off and took sides, and although we were so far down South that one would hardly suppose it possible to have a game of that kind, yet such was the case, the snow being in a splendidly good condition. How many I wonder, will remember that the game came very near ending seriously and would have done so, had I not been watching it very carefully. As the game progressed the men grew warm in the work; it became a charge from one side only to be driven back again by the other, and I could see form my standpoint that the hotheaded on each side were rapidly losing their tempers and presently instead of snow balls it was stones that were used as missiles, and after a few had been hurt on both sides, there was a rush of the contestants for their guns, and for a moment, I had all I could do to bring order out of the chaos that followed the stone throwing. Discipline, however prevailed and obedience to orders soon restored the men to their every day selves. I have often thought that it was fortunate that I happened to be at about the right place in camp to stop the on-rush of the men for their guns, for every one of them were worked up to such an angry mood that had but one gun been fired, the result might have caused some ugly wounds. Like all such affairs, the men were somewhat ashamed of themselves after it was all over. During the winter of 1863-4 the troops stationed at Scottsboro became quite intimate with all the people in the country for several miles around, and on Sundays quite a number of citizens made it a point to visit the camps of the various regiments; so that after the war was over several soldiers kept up a correspondence with people whose acquaintance they made during that long, but very pleasant winter, and I know of one, at least, who went back there after the war, and married the girl he courted during our stay there.

Another thing that occurred that winter that was of great moment to the troops-those at least who had enlisted in 1861, and that was the order from the War Department agreeing to grant a furlough of thirty days and $400 in money to every man whose term of enlistment was not far from completion, if he would re-enlist for a second term of "three years or during the war." I made a strong effort, backed, too, by General Logan that this order should include the Twelfth, as there were about one hundred and fifty of its members who had been in the service since the very beginning of the war; who had served the first year in the original regiment, and on its reorganization once more entered the service. The wording of the order was against us and the rule that was adopted only permitted those to re-enlist, beginning with the date of the muster-in of the regiment as a body. This cut the Twelfth out, and although there were men in its ranks who had served longer than whole regiments of soldiers to whom the order applied. All these facts were succinctly made out and sent to the Secretary of War, asking that the regiment be included in the order for re-enlistment and was strongly endorsed by General Logan as corps commander; but the decision was against the proposition and therefore the regiment remained at Scottsboro while quite a number of regiments from the same division and even the same brigade got the opportunity to go home on a junketing tour with transportation furnished home and back and a $400 premium for doing so. The plan, however was a good one for it enabled the army to maintain its efficiency by the return of those seasoned veterans, and since the war I have talked with a number of ex-Confederate officers who declared that the wholesale re-enlistment of the veterans of 1861 was most discouraging to the Confederate leaders and its army as well, they having predicted that but few would re-enlist after having been in the service well into the third year. The prediction of the enemy was far from being true as in almost every regiment granted the opportunity to re-enlist, very generally the entire force did so. The few who failed to do this remained in camp while the others went home.

While the members of the Twelfth greatly desired to be included yet there was but little grumbling when the decision was made final that it did not come under the terms of the order. The men cheerfully accepted the situation, and went about their duties as cheerfully as ever-only those who had enlisted at the very beginning of the war claiming that in debarring them-many of whom entered the service prior to a large number included in the order-they were not strictly treated fairly.

Those pleasant days flitted away rapidly, with only an episode or two worth recording, one of them being an expedition made up from details from various regiments of the corps to make a reconnaissance in the direction of Dalton, Ga., the then principal headquarters of the Confederate army. This was only an expedition to see what the Confederates were doing, rather than anything else. Dalton lay some distance south of the old battle ground of Chickamauga and the rebels there were no doubt doing about the same as the Federals were-that is, making every possible preparation for the campaign that the coming spring would surely bring about; the Confederates making every arrangement within their reach to defend; and the Federals also being engaged in storing supplies at various points; piling up ammunition in great storehouses, preparatory to the advance with Atlanta as the objective point. During the raid referred to the troops had several skirmishes, and one of them almost large enough to be called a battle, although on our side the orders were not to precipitate a real engagement, the only object of the raid being to obtain information as to what the rebels were doing, and to ascertain if any large body of their troops had been withdrawn from the Chattanooga front or not. Discovering that they were still there in force the expedition returned.

Readers of the history of the war will bear in mind that it was during this winter that General Sherman went down to Vicksburg and at that point organized quite a large body of the troops that remained in that place and adjoining stations where bodies had been assembled for various purposes with the intention of making a raid upon Meridian, an important point on the railroad that originally led from New Orleans to Richmond, Va., but which, following the capture of the former city became the southwestern end of the road as it was then in operation. In order to prevent the massing of too heave a force in front of Sherman on this raid, a short time after the return of the Union troops from Dalton, another expedition was organized to assist Sherman by sending a force of about 5,000 men across the Tennessee and further south into the State of Alabama. This expedition was made up very much as was the one to Dalton. Colonel John Mason Loomis, whose own regiment-the Twenty-sixth Illinois-had re-enlisted, along with it, had gone to his home in Chicago. This course on his part left myself in command of the brigade. The expedition was made of details of regiments from the different brigades and divisions that were encamped all along the line of the railroad from Stevenson on the East to Huntsville on the west, where General Logan had his headquarters. The troops were to assemble at Larkin's Ferry, where a pontoon bridge was thrown across the Tennessee river for the passage of the division. It should be understood that the Tennessee river in its course almost east and west from Chattanooga to Mussel Shoals in the west cut off quite a strip of the northern extremity of the State, and north of the river, where the Federals were encamped, there was no armed force in Alabama at that time. South of the river it was quite different as was soon ascertained after the troops had crossed over. In fact, the passage of the men placed the Federals in a region that had neither been fought over, raided, nor had it been foraged for supplies for either army. As a consequence, the men lived like "fighting cocks" as soon as their feet pressed the soil of this plentiful region. I remember that my whole command on the first evening after crossing the pontoon, where we went into camp awaiting the arrival of the entire force intended for the raid, had a plentiful supply of fresh beef; and I also remember an incident that came under my eye that same evening. The commissary had forgotten or else some one had failed to place on the wagons a supply of salt. This, as fresh beef was plentiful, was at once discovered. Salt was selling inside the Confederacy at $5 a pound and not to be had. There was considerable grumbling among the troops over its absence; but lo and behold! The very next morning a Yankee soldier had discovered a spring that gushed from the base of a very high hill in the vicinity, the water of which was strongly impregnated with salt. Extending his discovery he ascertained that quite a quantity of pure salt could be found in the immediate vicinity, having been formed in crystals much resembling round rusted stone, but which upon being broken was found to be pure salt, created by the evaporation of the water. I often thought afterwards that almost as soon as he crossed the river this Yankee had discovered an article almost as valuable as gold to the people of that region, which never had been found by a people who had lived in that vicinity for a hundred years it may be!

The next day the troops took up their march southward, the road leading up a ravine that as the troops proceeded widened out until finally the level country was reached. The head of the column had not proceeded far until it met a detachment of Confederate cavalry and, of course, a skirmish at once took place. As usual, the infantry was halted until it could be ascertained what kind and how much of a force of the enemy was in front. One feature of the expedition was to make it appear as large as possible to the eyes of the enemy; for as has already been stated, the object was to divert any force of Confederates from massing in front of General Sherman, who was then approaching Meridian and to prevent others, if possible marching to the assistance of the town, and induce any body of the rebels that might be on their way to change their course of march and induce it to assemble in our front. In order to make a display of the force, the regiments marched with a quarter of a mile of space between them so that the citizens that were passed would magnify the force into quite an an army in carrying the news to the rebel authorities-something that the citizens along the ways over which the Union forces might pass was sure to be done in some way during the night following the passage this being one very great advantage the Confederates had clear through the war. However on this raid the Confederates were never in sufficient force to compel the expedition to do more than halt for a short time. The Federals marched down into Alabama as far as Lebanon, a rather handsome county seat and while probably a thousand mounted men confronted the march at times they were always routed. The object of the raid, as I have already said was to favor General Sherman's operations and was ordered by him and as the troops learned afterwards was quite successful, and a considerable force was detached from the troops defending Meridian and sent to see what the raid in Northern Alabama really meant.

Warsaw Daily Times September 12, 1903

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